At the age of 18, Kevin Pearce soared onto the professional snowboarding stage, quickly becoming the athlete to watch in this ever-evolving sport. While training for the Olympic trials, Kevin sustained a traumatic brain injury. His ongoing rehabilitation and training remain an inspiration to countless people.
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When Pia Pearce thinks about her fourth son, Kevin, as a toddler, she sees him in action, a blur of color, a blast of movement. “I feel like he was born with perseverance … born into action,” she says. “He was always moving and climbing and jumping off stuff.” That never changed.
Coming from a family of eight children, Pia reveled in the constant motion of Kevin and his brothers, Andrew, Adam, and David. And living in Vermont, the Pearce boys thrived in the outdoors, the snow, and the sports. As Kevin got a little older, he followed his brother Adam to ski academies where they balanced academics with training and competitive snowboarding. “There is always a certain level of anxiety when your kids are participating in high-risk sports like snowboarding, but my husband, Simon, and I are firm believers in letting kids do what they love,” says Pia. “And I always felt that Adam and Kevin were thoughtful, never reckless. As they got better, they would try more difficult tricks, but they worked up to them realistically.”
Like most people, Pia says she didn’t know much about brain injury until Kevin was hurt. Her kids played other sports like soccer and lacrosse and she says that the risk of concussion — or brain injury — rarely crossed their radar.
It was on the last day of 2009 when Kevin took the devastating hit that resulted in his severe brain injury. He was attempting a trick called a cab double cork and he just missed the landing. He plummeted headfirst, slamming his forehead into the hard halfpipe. “Obviously, it was a shocking thing to have something horrible happen to Kevin and to see him in such a precarious way,” says Pia. Kevin, 22 at the time, spent six weeks in critical care in Park City, Utah then three months in rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. “Our family pulled together; that’s what got us through,” says Pia. In the early stages, she says, it was sometimes difficult to have to turn friends away, but the focus was on helping Kevin get better. He needed to rest his brain first and foremost. Kevin and the whole Pearce family received an outpouring of love and support from extended family, friends, and from the thousands of people around the world who sent cards and gifts and who wrote words of encouragement on Kevin’s website. It all provided a buoy of positivity for Kevin, his parents, and his brothers.
Adam, the second oldest brother, was the most hands-on during Kevin’s day-to-day in-patient rehabilitation at Craig Hospital. “Adam knew how to push Kevin, how to help him and inspire him since they knew each other so well,” says Pia. And Craig Hospital, she says, was very inclusive of the family in the recovery process. “They understood the value of family and I believe that had a large influence on Kevin’s outcome.” But of course, Kevin was the person steering the boat of his recovery. In the early stages, once he woke from his coma, Kevin still slept a lot of the time. His eyes didn’t track and he didn’t remember much. The journey to recovery after a brain injury is incredibly hard physically and emotionally. “It’s painful to see your child struggle, but Kevin always had this internal strength and will. And he’s so good-natured. He was unwilling to give up and he worked incredibly hard to get better,” says Pia. “We were blessed in his recovery that he kept making progress every day, even if those steps were tiny. We never felt as if we were at a standstill or that there were big setbacks. That made an enormous difference for Kevin, and for all of us.”
When Kevin was able to return home to Vermont, everyone rallied around him for the next stage of his recovery. He continued to do occupational and speech therapies at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and he did physical therapy at the local gym. “He was so excited to get back to working out at a gym instead of at a rehab hospital,” says Pia. “That was a big milestone for Kevin and it boosted his spirits.”
When Kevin started talking about returning to the halfpipe and to competition, his family did what they did best: they pulled together and shared their thoughts with love and honesty. They knew that brain injury can impair a person’s judgment and that Kevin probably didn’t understand fully the risk of hitting his head again … even an innocuous hit could fully disable him or even kill him. “It took Kevin a long time to come to terms with what he had lost. The brain doesn’t give you all the information you need when you have a brain injury. The people around him needed to help him understand this, and to be patient with him in the process,” says Pia.
“I honestly believe that one of the great gifts of having David — who has Down syndrome — is that I learned patience. And with Kevin’s recovery, I have become even more patient,” Pia says. With love and concern, the family was able to convince Kevin to wait a full two years before he returned to snowboarding. They had to help him develop a deeper awareness of what it means to have a severe traumatic brain injury. In fact, it was often from David that Kevin heard why his family was worried about his safety and that they were encouraging caution out of love.
David and Kevin had always been close, but the dynamic altered after Kevin’s brain injury. Both have intellectual challenges and, at times, get frustrated by them, but neither is by any means defined by them. Often, they challenge each other and help the other take steps toward acceptance of what is reality. Pia says she always made it clear to David that everyone has his own challenges in life but that finding ways around them is what matters. His father, for example, has dyslexia but it never got in the way of his becoming a well-known entrepreneur in glassblowing and pottery.
Kevin has returned to snowboarding, but only recreationally. He rides in powder, he doesn’t do tricks on the halfpipe, and he rides for the sheer fun of it in the safest way possible. Having to give up snowboarding competitively was a big loss for Kevin, but he has parlayed his passion into educating others to “love your brain.” Pia recounts an appointment Kevin had with a doctor when he was talking about how frustrated he was, how clumsy and forgetful he felt. The doctor told him that saying mean things to and about yourself actually harms your brain. The “Love Your Brain” campaign — an outreach campaign born from the documentary, “The Crash Reel,” and his inspiring story — emerged from that conversation. Now, Kevin and Adam are traveling across the country taking the film to schools and educating kids about concussions, what to do if they or someone they love sustains a hit to the head, how to love your brain — and how to persevere no matter what. “The response has been fantastic,” says Pia. “The kids really relate to Kevin and Adam and what they are teaching.”
Pia still worries about Kevin. She worries about all her kids. What mother doesn’t? “I can’t bug Kevin too much, or he won’t listen to his mom,” she says. What does give her comfort is the closeness of their family. When Kevin was in the first major stages of recovery, she says that the family made a collective choice not to ask “why me?” or to dwell on the tragedy. They decided, instead, to stay positive and look forward. “We tried to hold onto that no matter how challenging a day seemed,” she says. “We’re a team. We support each other, there’s lots of love and fun,” she says. “That cannot be broken.”